Ethics

On Moral Relativism

Cultural Relativism is the view that “Normality…is culturally defined” (Ruth Benedict). More precisely, cultural relativists hold to MR:

(MR) There is no moral principle which necessarily applies to everyone, everywhere, and at every time

For the cultural relativist, the source of moral principles is the conventions given by a group of people who make up a culture. The argument for such a view is:

  1. What is normative is culturally determined
  2. What is moral is normative
  3. Therefore, what is moral is culturally defined

There are a couple of reasons why one might hold to such a view. First, the following is true: “Beliefs about what is right and wrong vary from culture to culture.” So a relativist might conclude that since we have no way to tell which culture is correct (ours or theirs), the following is also true: “What is really right and wrong varies from culture to culture.” 

Second, one might think that the alternative—absolutism, the view that moral principles necessarily apply to everyone, everywhere, and at every time—is false. And since the only alternative to absolutism is relativism, relativism must be true. This strategy involves showing that breaking these absolutes is morally justifiable on occasion and so they cannot be absolutes.

Replies:

There are a couple of reasons to reject cultural or moral relativism. The first reason is that it is not the case that beliefs about what is right and wrong vary from culture to culture entails that what is really right and wrong varies from culture to culture. Just because people disagree, it does not follow that there is no way to tell who’s right. If this was so, then there would be no reason to change from one set of moral principles to another set of moral principles. As Howard-Snyder observes:

“If the majority of our society approves of slavery at one time and disapproves of it at another time, ethical relativism cannot say that we have shaken off an incorrect moral view and acquired a correct one. It must say, instead, that we have simply gone from having one correct view…to having a different correct view.” 

Surely the injustice of slavery was really an injustice. But if morality is relative to culture and that’s all it is, then there is no moral difference between enslaving others and not enslaving others. And the same goes for every other moral issue.

Second, suppose someone like me comes along and says, “moral relativism is false and it is deeply wrong.” What can the moral relativist say? If he says it is intolerant to deny ethical relativism, then being intolerant toward ethical relativism is either only wrong relative to one culture or it is objectively wrong. If the former, then it is not wrong to reject ethical relativism. If the latter, then ethical relativism is false. Thus, MR is self-refuting.

Finally, and along the same lines as the previous reason, according to moral relativism, there is at least one moral principle that necessarily applies to everyone, everywhere, and at every time, namely, the principle that moral principles are culturally determined. But this is a moral principle not determined by any culture. But then it is not true that “There is no moral principle which necessarily applies to everyone, everywhere, and at every time”. Thus, moral relativism is self-refuting.

In sum, moral relativism is fundamentally incoherent. But it is also impossible to live as a moral relativist. Moral relatives can’t watch all the injustices of the world and think: “well, according to that person or that culture, that action is morally fine. I can be okay with it. After all, there is nothing really wrong with what they are doing. It’s just culture.” And moral relativists who suffer injustices don’t sit there thinking, “this is just a cultural thing. There is nothing really wrong with what they are doing to me.”

Finally, although nobody likes to admit it, everyone knows that at least some of the things we do are not right. We all know that we are somehow breaking rules all the time. Our consciences produce–even to a small degree–the knowledge that we are sinning. If so, then we ought to ask against what or whom we are sinning.

Ruth Benedict, “Anthropology and the Abnormal” in Moral Philosophy ed. Louis Pojman, 33-37

Howard-Snyder, “Christianity and Ethics” in Reason for the Hope Within, 377.

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